Pierrot le fou
Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou is a confounding and tragically comic work that celebrates the violent capriciousness of cinematic art. Characteristics that many would normally consider as detriments to the quality of a film, Godard unabashedly redeploys as strengths: a somewhat linear plot oft interrupted by deliberate, authorial digressions usually focused on picturesque, natural environs; a mise-en-scène saturated with eye-popping primary colors that seem to provide layer upon layer of head-scratching ambiguity; an overwhelming amount of cultural, literary, cinematic, and artistic references—enough, even, that some argue Pierrot le fou’s quotidian tendencies suggest indolent derivation; periods of total silence on the soundtrack; far less physical titillation than modern-day audiences demand from the story of an adventurous, young couple on the lamb; and, along with many others, anything but a happy ending. Armed with such evidence, Pierrot’s critics profess the film is nothing more than a lighthearted, aimless and mostly incoherent work. Although Pierrot is clearly the product of a restless and internally conflicted auteur, it is anything but light, incoherent or lacking for direction.
Even though describing “what happens” in a film by Jean-Luc Godard is by no means a clear indication of “what’s actually going on,” a little background information may be in order to assist the uninitiated among us. Loosely based on a crime novel penned by American author Lionel White, Pierrot le fou pivots on the decision of its lead character, Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to spontaneously abandon his comfortable but stifling marriage, home life and career, in favor of a picaresque escapade in the south of France with Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), his former lover and the current babysitter of his children. Ferdinand quickly discovers that Marianne associates with some shady folk, and her affections for him eventually prove deceptively false. As the duo journeys from bourgeois Paris to living off the land near the Mediterranean, a tender yet doomed love story unfolds and disastrously concludes, while bristling with contradictions, Godardian inventiveness and free-spirit, unexpected but needed humor and fascinating artistic flourishes.
Trying to navigate the thematic discourse of Pierrot le fou—or, for that matter, any Godard picture—may be somewhat self-defeating. Like a revered painting or the finest musical compositions, Godard’s cinema defies a clear and objective interpretation…and we are better off for it. The best I can do is offer a subjective analysis—a confession, perhaps—as to what it feels like to watch Pierrot le fou, hoping to create an avenue for discussion in the process.
Pierrot engulfs the viewer with a sense of agitation, primarily generated from the contradictions confronting the characters and the filmmaker. Ferdinand is intoxicated by contemplation, reflection and literature. He loves to read and is even blamed by Marianne for spending what little money they have on books. Not the passive type, Marianne possesses a total lack of interest in Ferdinand’s leisure activities. She simply wants “to live” and confesses they really don’t understand one another: “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings.” In fact, it is the emotional component to Marianne’s personality, and what was lacking from Ferdinand’s past life, that drew him to her and provided the impetus for his escape from Paris. Marianne’s emotional and sincere spontaneity attracted Ferdinand, but his tendency to express himself only in an intellectual manner serves as a fatal roadblock. These inherent contradictions create spaces between Ferdinand and Marianne that prove difficult, if not impossible, for the characters to negotiate. It is a constant battle between pursuit of one’s own interests and the selfless actions that tend to foster a loving partnership. The agitation and unease created in the viewer undoubtedly stems from the recognition of such conflicts in our own relationships.
Ironically, confronting this sense of unease and agitation is a feeling of exhilaration and excitement created by Godard’s application of inventive and free-flowing devices that seem to celebrate the naked unpredictability of art. In fact, Pierrot le fou is obsessed with art in its many forms. Marianne’s last name, of course, references the great painter Auguste Renoir—Pierrot is littered with inserts of his and other famous paintings—and his son Jean, a director Godard held in the highest esteem. Similarly, Ferdinand quotes from or name-drops countless books and authors, including Balzac. But the most inspired, albeit obvious, reference to art is the use of eye-catching yet clearly fabricated primary colors in nearly every scene of the film. The reds, blues, and yellows of Pierrot le fou fervently announce their presence and continually dominate the viewer’s visual attention. The characters’ clothes, their modes of transportation, living quarters, places they frequent, the objects they surround themselves with, and even the natural settings they inhabit combine to exhibit a radiant palette—a cinematic painting in the truest sense.
Along with enhancing the emotions of a scene, or providing an insight into the psyche of a character, Pierrot’s color scheme calls attention to its existence as the intentional choice of the film’s director. The sheer fabrication and artifice of the colors, together with many of the calculated flourishes noted above, are the result of a director highlighting the medium that allows him to create and the means by which he is attempting to communicate with his audience. Moviegoers may be—and have been—taken aback by some of Pierrot’s more abstract embellishments and its disregard for realism, but this is precisely Godard’s goal. It’s okay to see the painting as well as the canvas. Pierrot le fou does not seek to exhibit emotional, psychological or even social realism through its actors or filmic detail; rather, it seeks to utilize its varied devices to tap directly into the subconscious of its audience, in effect bypassing those filters that may alter a visceral understanding of its true subject matter.
So what is actually going on in Pierrot le fou? For all the film’s inventiveness, radical choices, conspicuous artificiality and appreciation for art, Pierrot wears the frustrations of its burgeoning artist squarely on its sleeve. While Ferdinand initially flees his life of comfort and safety for the opportunity to reach for his artistic dreams alongside the tempestuous Marianne, he quickly learns Marianne is an anchor that slowly but surely drowns his creative sensibilities. Ferdinand’s appreciation for literature and philosophy and his desire to write and reflect are no match for his companion’s preference for “feelings over words.” Godard conveys Marianne’s unceasing apathy toward Ferdinand’s pursuits with close-ups of her discontented face…often repeated just to get the point across. This once again highlights the contradictions inherent in their personalities, and those pesky incongruities make Ferdinand’s predicament desperately ironic—the very thing he sought with Marianne proves just as elusive in her company as it did before. The feeling generated by Ferdinand’s creative suffocation and dissatisfaction is one of aching despair, sadly leading to both despondency and death.
In the context of Pierrot’s narrative, it is easy to read Marianne’s betrayal of her relationship with Ferdinand as the tipping point for his vengeance. His genuine affection for Marianne, once reciprocated and then suddenly absent, manifests in melodramatic destruction that could only result from a jealous hatred. Nevertheless, no matter the level of Marianne’s perfidy, it is clear he never disposes of his love entirely. We feel a certain disorientation and internal conflict every step of the way, possibly in sync with Ferdinand’s own personal divisions. It’s a disorientation Godard meticulously establishes from the fragmented opening credits straight through to the film’s disembodied coda.
Despite the suffocating frustration and unease flowing directly to the audience throughout Pierrot le fou, the viewer does experience several brilliant moments of comedic levity. The most realized example is an interlude in which Ferdinand and Marianne, out of money and growing restless, decide to put on a play for some American servicemen on leave. Ferdinand, clad in a Navy captain’s getup, and Marianne, playing a Vietnamese woman, act out a ridiculously clichéd scenario in which Ferdinand literally screams “yeah” and “sure” in a series of escalating demands, at gun point mind you, toward Marianne’s helpless victim performance. The laughs arrive when the American’s react to Ferdinand’s mockingly violent bullying with deadpan reactions like, “Ooh, I really like that.” Godard in no way hides his political opinions here: even though the scenario is presented as satire, his disgust with American involvement in Vietnam and the passive acceptance of its citizens is transparent. The fact that he is soliciting laughs as opposed to sober acknowledgements makes little difference. The lightheartedness felt by the viewer only adds to the gravity of Godard’s accusations.
The play scene and Ferdinand’s constant battle against the forces of his artistic repression evince a filmmaker at a crossroads. The merits of Godard’s rule-breaking genre deconstructions comprising his pre-Pierrot filmography are questioned by the possibility of a cinema of ideas and ideology. We know, of course, that Godard did change lanes in the late 60s in favor of an increasingly complex form, focused on further challenging its popular tendencies and injecting, at least subconsciously, his take on the current body politic. While watching Pierrot, one can almost feel the director wrestling with himself. And the autobiographical nature of the film, particularly Ferdinand’s creative repression and resulting anger, provide clues concerning his past and future ruminations in the film medium. But as for Pierrot le fou, it’s a singular work, even for a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and one that must be experienced.